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Answer by Archie D’Cruz, editor, designer, writer:
To give some context:
One of my clients is a “big five” publisher, based in New York. I also have a few other clients in publishing, ranging in size from fairly large to very small. I also know at least 20 authors who have self-published.
So overall, how do the books compare? For the most part, self-published books do not even come close to what a major publisher puts out.
This is not a knock on the authors themselves. Some of the writers I know who have self-published are good—brilliant even. Yet the books suffer in comparison to what a major publishing house will release. Why? Here are a few reasons:
Editing. It constantly surprises me that so many self-published authors see no need to trust their manuscripts to an editor (or, for that matter, a proofreader). Or they may just not wish to spend the money on what they may feel is an unnecessary expense.
Having seen raw manuscripts from published authors, I can tell you that they aren’t necessarily a class above. Their work can sometimes do with a bit of polish as well. They make errors, too. What they benefit from is having multiple sets of eyes review and make edits—often many rounds of edits. Copy is also checked for spelling consistency and reviewed using a style guide (typically the Chicago Manual of Style).
The result, most often, is a superior product.
Cover design. I suspect it would shock a lot of people to know exactly how much time a major publisher spends on cover design. This is such a critical aspect of book publishing, simply because it is the first thing a reader notices. The larger publishers I work for sometimes go through as many as a dozen different versions of a cover during the rough layout phase, and then continue to work with three or four options. There are photo shoots if necessary. Yes, cover designs can (and often do) take months.
Of course, there are many times that a major publisher will also use stock photo images from, say, Getty Images or iStock, but even these are combined and manipulated in so many ways that they are unrecognizable from the original by the time the book goes to print.
Many self-published authors, though, go the Fiverr route, or purchase an inexpensive stock image, only to discover the quality is not that great or that the same image has been used countless times before, so there’s nothing unique about it.
Design and layout. The production values for the interior of the book are just as important. I cringe when I see the ghastly Times New Roman used as body type in a book. The same goes for type set too close to the binding (something that needs to be taken into account while laying out the book), or when hyphenations are set to “on” when the type itself is justified, or when the type is set so close to the page borders that it is not allowed to “breathe.”
Authors aren’t expected to know all this, of course. But larger publishers have designers to take care of this; self-published authors, on the other hand find they have a lot of learning to do.
None of this is the fault of authors who self-publish. In a sense, we are fortunate to live in an era where we don’t need a traditional publisher to release a book. But as far as quality goes, for the most part, there is a divide.
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